GENERAL SYNOD can wash over the reporter like a wave, leaving no marks in the sand to indicate that it was ever of real import. The pace of back-to-back debates means that, in the blink of an eye, you can have switched from the viability of an Anglican Covenant to the tax benefits of Cumbrian soakaways or the Crown’s position on the guardianship of temporalities.
Yet the sessions of Synod last week had a thread running through them of a common determination — a surprising penitential quality, allied to a sense of urgency. Synod members wanted to put teeth into motions: to tell the Government to change rather than “consider” its shameful treatment of destitute asylum-seekers; to urge churches to act rather than rubber-stamp reports; to vote against a motion if it was not going anywhere.
There was a robustness about it, a bigger vision, which repudiated the C of E’s habitual navel-gazing stance. The debate on BNP membership got to the heart of that particular issue, eliciting declarations that, however flawed the motion might appear to some, the public had to know that, for Christians, it was simply not possible to speak in the name of Jesus and be a racist.
Synod members were able to acknowledge the squeamishness of secular society about the Christian faith, to affirm belief in a special Christian interpretation of the common good, and to rebutt the lie that to evangelise was to be a religious bigot or a fundamentalist fanatic. A self–declared “dyed-in-the-wool liberal, as dodgy as they come” welcomed teaching on the uniqueness of Christ.
Abuses of human rights brought out passion and commitment, especially the debate on human trafficking. But it was in discussion of the perennially thorny Anglican issues that it was possible to see in the language of this Synod a movement towards what the Archbishop of Canterbury has been pressing for in every significant meeting: a commitment to search for common ground.
He pressed for it again here in a reminder of “what might be lost if the Communion fragmented further or found itself gathering around more than one centre”, and a reference to the “difficult but unavoidable search for the forms of self-restraint that will allow us to keep conversation alive”.
Dr Williams asked: “What are we going to do in a world where people are not going to go away; where the Church of God overall is never going to be as pure as we want to define purity, and where we are always going to be embarrassed by the fact that we bear the same name as people whose views we don’t own or approve?”
You could hear the beginnings of a shift in debate on the latest report on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations: no nearer to doctrinal agreement, but a stage on the journey, expressed by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, as “characteristic Anglican confidence in going forward together as best we can”.
The Bible had emerged as common ground at a synod of bishops in Rome: “If the Bible is to be a sign of unity, we must study it together. We have no idea where it might take us.”
You could hear it in the debate on women bishops, fraught though the issue remains. It is clear what positions will be articulated when you hear the chairman call: “Mrs Christina Rees, followed by the Bishop of Beverley.”
Yet Sister Anne Williams CA, an opponent of women bishops, acknowledged that the Manchester review group, of which she had been part, had “listened to each other, did not agree, but came to an understanding and mutual respect for one another, spoke in Christian love, and strove to find a way forward.”
ALL THIS represents progress — the Lambeth Conference ethos perhaps beginning to permeate. It was sad, therefore, to hear what the Rt Revd Don Harvey of the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), now a bishop of the province of the Southern Cone, had to say at an overwhelmingly male fringe meeting hosted by Anglican Mainstream.
The language here was finality. The proposed Anglican Church in North America was spoken of as an existing entity, which, it was hoped, would in time get the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It had been “game over” in 2007, when the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada had ruled same-sex blessings to be not in conflict with the core credal doctrine of the Church, said Bishop Harvey.
“Compromise is not in our vocabulary,” he declared. “Those who say we can live with our diversity don’t know the extent of that diversity. . . We have no choice but to continue the way we have.” Lawsuits and lock-outs represented “a sad mess . . . nothing short of tragic”.
Someone asked him what was happening to the buildings of departing congregations. In two cases, they had “decided not to share the property with those who so decidedly oppose what we stand for”. Instead, Seventh-Day Adventist churches were proving a useful solution, since they did not worship on Sundays.
I thought of the suffering and courageous Anglicans in Harare, locked out of their churches by the deposed bishop and Mugabe apologist Nolbert Kunonga. They run the gauntlet of armed thugs every time they try to go to church.
The court ruling that they were to share their premises with the Kunonga faction was iniquitous, since they are the lawful Church. But they would swallow their distaste and do even that, for the sake of their witness. This is the spirit of the Synod, I believe, and the vision it is beginning to grasp.